SECOND HELPINGS

Middle East Agreement: You don't need to be a census demographer to recognize the Valley's growing diversity. Just check out the number of Middle Eastern restaurants--at least a dozen now, by my count. I have three favorites. Cafe Istanbul is based in Tempe, at 903 South Rural. Despite its name, it serves up Lebanese fare, not Turkish delights. It's got honest-to-God shawarma, meltingly meaty and tender. Try a shawarma sandwich and see if you can ever bring yourself to order a gyro again. I also enjoy the grilled chicken, fashioned with a bucket of lemon, and ma'anek, a vividly flavored lamb sausage. Tasty Kabob, also in Tempe at 1250 East Apache, is where you can find the Valley's best Iranian food. Persian fare is heavily scented with spices, but not remotely spicy hot. Baghali polo is a particular treat--rice seasoned with lots of dill, studded with lima beans and topped with fork-tender lamb shanks. Check out the joojeh kebab, too. It's a whole Cornish hen, cut, marinated, skewered and grilled. And Tasty Kabob also springs for expensive basmati rice. Finally, there's Yusef's, at 15238 North Cave Creek Road in Phoenix. It's half grocery store, half restaurant, recently expanded and spiffed up. It's a warm family operation. The proprietor's wife does the cooking, the kids serve and work the register, while "Yusef" (actually, the name of a previous proprietor) bustles about. The kitchen sends out superior versions of kafta and kibbe. But I'm happiest downing homemade desserts like knafeh, honey-drenched ricotta cheese stuffed into shredded phyllo dough. And the mint tea and Arabic coffee are the best in town. Zagat to Me: The high-profile Zagat restaurant surveys are the IBM, General Motors and Exxon of the eating-out guidebook industry. They've got lots of readers, and lots of clout. The publishers don't have a stable of food reviewers. Instead, they rely on locals, who send in their choices for their city's best restaurants. Participants are rewarded with a copy of the survey. The latest Zagat venture, America's Best Meal Deals ($12.95), has just floated across my desk. It purports to cover some two dozen high-value restaurants in each of 29 cities, including Phoenix-Scottsdale. I can only hope that other cities' listings aren't as dull and nearly useless as the local ones. What are places like the Eggery, the Good Egg, Fajitas and T.C. Eggington's doing on a Valley list of best meal deals? How did the good but hardly cheap Yamakasa and Malee's get lumped in with budget restaurants? Where are Mike's Golden Crust, Guedo's, C-Fu Gourmet, Honey Bear's BBQ, Pearl of Asia and Cafe Istanbul? Where are San Carlos Bay Seafood Restaurant, Such Is Life and the Original Pancake House? I can't quarrel with some selections--Los Dos Molinos, Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe, Eliana's and Lenny's Burger Shop. But for the most part, the Phoenix-Scottsdale listings seem way too cautious, and about two years behind the culinary curve. Puttin' On the Ritz: One of this town's better summer deals is now under way, through September 10. It's the Uptown Dine Around, a progressive dinner and hotel package. Diners get started at Christopher's Bistro for appetizers, head over to RoxSand for the entree, and go downstairs to the Coffee Plantation for some java. Then it's back to the Ritz-Carlton for a dessert sampler and champagne in the room. The package costs $175 per couple, plus room tax. You can make reservations by calling the Ritz at 468-0700.

 
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